A few months ago, the idea of Sol Campbell and Gary Neville joining the England world cup squad probably seemed about as likely as Lyon knocking Madrid out of the Champions League.
Neville had fallen way down the pecking order at Old Trafford, with first O’Shea, then Brown, and then even Rafael all seemingly ahead of him.
The prospects for Campbell seemed even bleaker, following the Notts County debacle, he was probably grateful that Arsenal allowed him to train with them let alone, harbouring any first-team aspirations.
Wenger’s decision to sign Campbell was seen as something of a gamble, after all at the age of 35 and following a not too impressive campaign at Pompey last season, many felt that Wenger was perhaps letting his heart run his head. The fact that Campbell was the Gunners only signing during the transfer window merely seemed to add fuel to the criticism, was he really good, young, or motivated enough to help an Arsenal title bid?
While Campbell was salvaging his career at the Emirates, Neville was keeping the bench warm at Old Trafford while doing his usual best to upset opposition fans. Wild celebrations following Michael Owen’s injury time winner in the Manchester derby were not enough for Neville when it came to upsetting the blue half of the city. Touchline gestures towards Carlos Tevez, as well as an interview claiming the Argentinean was not worth the money it would have taken to keep him, made sure that Neville will be about as welcome at Eastlands as Ryan Shawcross would be at the Emirates. Neville even managed to find time in his busy schedule to anger fans of his favourite club Liverpool by commenting on their Champions League exit, although the word ‘gloating’ would probably be a more appropriate term. It seemed Neville had become something of a bit of a joke to anyone from outside Old Trafford, like a drunken uncle at a wedding who insists on getting on the microphone, he was in danger of turning into more of a mascot than a player.
The last few weeks though, have seen a remarkable turn around in fortune for both former England players. Campbell after a shaky start against Stoke in the FA cup has shown that he can still perform at the highest level. Despite only making five appearances for Arsenal this time round, he seems to be growing in confidence with each one and has even admitted that he has yet to give up on a place in the World Cup squad. This may sound like bluster but there are several factors working in the former Spurs captain’s favour. For starters the players behind Rio Ferdinand and John Terry in the central defender stakes are far from outstanding. Matthew Upson, Joleon Lescott and Ryan Shawcross are all very good players, but truly world-class? I’m not so sure. Also with Arsenal through to the next round of the Champions League, Campbell will get the chance to shine on a much bigger stage than any of the aforementioned players, not to mention the fact that he could well still help Arsenal win the title.
Neville on the other hand has found his path to both the United and possibly England team cleared by the injury to Wes Brown. With O’Shea out for the season and Rafael’s inexperience occasionally getting the better of him, Neville has become United’s first-choice right back. His performance against Milan in the second-leg highlighted that he still has a lot to offer, not just defence-wise but also bombing forward whipping in crosses. Although Glen Johnson is likely to be Capello’s first choice right back, there may still be a case for Neville to be taken as his understudy.
The main difficulty either player may find in making the plane to South Africa could be their age- both being 35 years-old. This may not be the obstacle that some suspect though, as until very recently David Beckham was seen as almost certain to make the squad at practically the same age. Let’s not forget that both players have bundles of experience with over 150 caps between them not to mention appearances in 11 major tournaments.
With the inexperience of other defensive options such as Micah Richards or many of the other centre-back options it seems the idea of taking either of them may not be all that far-fetched.
Read more of Justin Mottershead work at his blog ‘Name is on the Trophy’